Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning

Selling AI to SMBs: It's About the Story, Not the Tech

For AI to become more mainstream, brands first need to convince resellers there are enough benefits to selling AI products that it justifies their investment.

IT brands know that artificial intelligence is an important part of their future business and express optimism about opportunities to market AI products to buyers of all different sizes. Small to medium-size businesses also are looking forward to harnessing innovative AI technology to gain efficiencies or boost productivity.

And yet, the numbers suggest that SMBs aren’t quite ready to bite. They simply don’t view the perceived benefits of AI products as compelling enough to justify the investment.

The technology and its benefits exist. What’s lacking is a robust marketing effort to educate SMBs about how AI can help them drive growth. Right now, IT buyers simply aren’t receiving enough information from IT brands and channel partners about how they can put AI solutions into action. That’s what needs to change, and here’s how brands and partners can do it.

Offer partner certification. Anytime a new technology comes around, there’s bound to be reluctance from SMBs about being the first ones to take the leap of faith on the new product. To convince a user to become an early adopter, the partner making the sale needs to be well-versed in the technology and be able to explain how it will affect the SMB’s operations. The deeper a partner’s knowledge on the subject, the more likely a buyer will trust the pitch.

Brands can help resellers gain credibility in the AI space by offering certification programs where channel partners can be trained on the ins and outs of AI. Such programs benefit resellers by bolstering their knowledge of a key technology and by offering them a way to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Of course, the programs benefit brands by boosting their channel’s grasp of AI, making it more likely that partners will be able to effectively sell AI products.

Incentivize, incentivize, incentivize. Incentives are a useful way to nudge partners toward types of business they might be reluctant to embrace. If resellers are doing well selling one line of product, they’re often hesitant to make the effort to branch out into new areas of business. Targeted incentives that reward partners for generating AI leads, registering AI deals or making AI sales can make all the difference.

A recent OneAffiniti survey of 525 IT channel partners (457 in North America) found that more than 80 percent said they will remain loyal to a brand that provides incentives. Financial rewards are the most popular kind of incentive, but a substantial percentage of partners say they would like to be rewarded with marketing support.

Don’t explain the technology; tell a story. The final part of the puzzle, of course, is marketing. The key thing to remember when marketing to SMBs is that they are businesspeople who want to make investments that are right for their companies. Therefore, AI marketing shouldn’t focus on explaining the intricacies of the new technology or on high-level discussions about the future of AI in society. Instead, the key to marketing AI is to explain how the new product will benefit a company’s bottom-line.

Convey information about AI and its potential in language that relates as directly as possible to SMBs. Sync the words with the day-to-day experience of SMB decision-makers — provide concrete examples of how the changes will help them cut costs, reduce wasted time or increase sales. Case studies are one of the best ways to bring home the advantages of a new technology, and the more closely a study is aligned with a buyer’s specific vertical, the better.

SMB buyers come with a variety of different personalities, interests and, above all else, attention spans. OneAffiniti’s survey of end-users has shown that buyers are most likely to favor short-form reports that are no more than 5-6 pages long. Furthermore, the best way to ensure that marketing content has maximum impact is to make it as visual as possible. One eye-catching data visualization goes a lot further than the same information in a traditional written format.

Make marketing campaigns interactive. Include interactive content that invites buyers to share their opinions or provide information about what types of products would be most useful to them. Surveys and questionnaires can provide invaluable intelligence that channel partners can use to follow up with buyers.

Brands need to lead the way. Partners can’t be expected to do the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing. Small and medium-sized partners don’t have the time or resources to craft a professional marketing campaign, so they look to vendors to take the lead. Through-channel marketing offers the best way for brands to take over marketing on behalf of partners and deliver high-quality, relevant content to users that will generate more leads for resellers.

Joel Montgomery is founder and CEO of OneAffiniti, a partner marketing company with closed sales tracking that he started in 2008 in Sydney. He expanded into the United States in 2015. You can find him on LinkedIn at Joel Montgomery.

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